Monday, December 11, 2017

Genesis 21 :1-21 “The Son of Promise “

As we come to Genesis 21 we shall find here a birth that we have been eagerly waiting for - Isaac the promised son of the covenant. 
His name means   “laughter”. And so it is. The birth of this boy brings new joy and laughter into the lives of this old couple. And it is by all accounts a miraculous birth.   All this   reminds us very much of the language of the time in which we find ourselves right now - the  Christmas season-the remembrance of the birth of Christ our Lord. The story of Isaac in a sense prefigures the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, who was long awaited, and born under mysterious circumstances, and who has brought laughter into the lives of many that have trusted in Him for their salvation.  
Indeed, the prefigurement of Christ is found in every book of the OT. [1] 

And yet, while it is a happy story, we shall also find that there are dark shadows lurking  in the background. This portion of Scripture that begins with laughter (21:1-7) ends  with a painful separation (21:8-21). We will learn lessons from both.

1.     21:1-7 :  God is faithful

"The Lord did to Sarah as He had promised."   Allow me to begin with a brief comment on the length of time it took for God to fulfill his promise to Abraham and Sarah.  The promise of an offspring  was first  made  in Chapter 12  when God called  Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees. At that time he was 75 (12:4) ,  and Sarah  was 65  years old.  It took 25 years to fulfill that promise (see 21:5)!  
How are we to understand this?  We remember that Abraham  (like Adam) was foolish to listen to his wife  when she suggested that he take  her servant Hagar and have  a son by proxy.  Ishmael (who shall occupy our thoughts  in the second half)  was born as a result.  He could of course not be the son of the promise. He was born as a result of  the scheming  of  Abraham and Sarah.   So, apart from this setback,  what reason could  we provide for this long waiting? 
The answer is simply, “we don’t know!” 
All we do  know is that God chose to work in a mysterious way His wonders to perform[2], as He so often does!  The mystery of Divine Sovereignty in the outworking of things is so well expressed in Isaiah  55:9 :  
"For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” 
Whatever we may think, the birth of Isaac was in the end a sovereign act of God, and, from God’s perspective it happened just at the right time. In that sense his birth was like that   of Jesus, who is the ultimate seed or offspring of Abraham, and who in God’s providence was born at just the right time (Gal. 4:4 ESV In the fullness of time). In both cases the sons of promise were conceived despite human reason and ability, and through the supernatural activity of God.

There may be a number of people here today who have been waiting on God to fulfill what they believe is a divine promise from the Word of God to them. What shall we say to this? 
  • Be absolutely clear that you do have a clear promise from the Bible, and not from your own fancies. 
  • Remember also that a Bibles text taken out of context is a pretext. 

God nowhere promises you in the Bible that you will have children if you had none so far.   
God nowhere promises you in the Bible that you will recover from every illness  and that you will be happy, wealthy and healthy  all the days of your life.  
God does not even promise that all the children of every believer will be converted.  

But  God  does  promise  that  He will “supply every need [3]of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.“ (Phil. 4:19
He promises that, for any true believer, all things will work together for the good. (Rom. 8:28).  
He has promised that nothing will separate us from His love in Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:31-39). 
He has promised us that He will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him (Lk. 11:13). 
He has promised us that if He has begun a good work in us he will complete it (Phil. 1:6).  
He has promised to come again, and to take us to be where He is (Jn. 14:1-3). 

So we can wait, standing on these promises of God, but the precise times of the fulfillment of His promises are not made known to us. By faith we believe and by faith we cling to the promises of God. God, our Father knows the best timing!

In this case God had given a specific promise to Abraham and Sarah  and He was  going to fulfil it. God is faithful. And now Sarah is happy… very happy (21: 6,7). The Lord has turned her reproach into a blessing, and  Abraham  makes it known in a very vivid way. He  names  their  son , ‘Isaac’ … He laughs! (21:3)  

The application of this truth is exciting. Whatever  God promises, He will do. He will keep His word. And so we must learn to  trust Him. All of us have our own challenges in trusting the Lord, but Genesis 21  has been recorded  that you may know  that  God can be trusted. If we do not believe that God is faithful, then it will be very difficult for us to pray meaningfully.   
C.H. Spurgeon often encouraged his congregation to study the promises of God and to pray  according to the  promises  of God.   Rehearse the promises of God. Meditate on them. Remember them, and trust God for the outcome.  And do not shrink back (Hebr.  10:35-39). At long last we will see what we have hoped for, just as is the case here in 21: 1-7. 

2.  God's  common Grace is kind  to all mankind - but  His love  for His chosen people   is without equal. (21:8-21) 

In this portion of Scripture we find the doctrine of election applied.   It begins with an old   conflict in Abraham’s family life.  As Isaac, the son of promise   is weaned, Abraham  makes a great feast  for him,  and  we find that  Hagar  the mother of Ismael  laughs – but  not in a happy way , but in derision (21:9). At this point Sarah insists that Hagar leaves. Conflict is looming between the son of promise and the son born according to a sinful decision. 
Paul makes a great deal of this  story in his letter to the Galatians 4:21-31   where he  tells us that the two boys, Isaac and Ishmael and their two mothers, Sarah and Hagar are allegories of two covenants. Sarah bore the son of promise, corresponding to freedom, living by grace. Hagar  bore the son  born according to the flesh, bearing children for slavery, living by law. The plain fact concerning them is that they cannot co-exist!

To put that into gospel language: The son of promise, Isaac corresponds to those living under the gospel. A gospel man or woman relies on   that which Jesus Christ has done for them. If you have trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ, and have been born again by a second miraculous birth, then you belong to the line of Isaac, the son of promise.  By contrast, Ismael, the son of the flesh, relies  on himself. He judges himself by  his own legal  standards of self-  righteousness. These two systems cannot co-exist, and so we  find  that  Hagar and Ishmael  must leave.  This is not ultimately just a family squabble.   It is about a profound  biblical truth, and in   Psalm 83: 4-6 we find  an outworking  of all this. Here the Psalmist  shows us that  the nations  which are related to Israel  are insanely  jealous of them and therefore they  conspire against Israel.  
The distinction between Isaac and Ishmael is much more profound than we are able to understand  at face value.  It is a theological issue, and it is revealed, as we have already  seen in Galatians  4:21 ff. 

There are  ultimately only two kingdoms in this world – and to these two kingdoms belong  either the  children born of the flesh  or  the  children born of the promise.    And in his letter to the Galatians  Paul was saying, don't be surprised if the synagogue (the sons of the flesh, the sons of the Sinaitic law and hence ultimately the sons of Ishmael)  is persecuting you. 
And ultimately we shall see that Ishmael persecuted Isaac.  
So  do not be surprised  if the unbelieving seed of Abraham is persecuting  true  Christians. That is Paul's argument and therefore  he  continues:  
"But what does the Scripture say? Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit  with the son of the free woman. So  brothers, we are not children of  the slave , but of the free woman." (Gal. 4:30,31)


Sarah has asked Abraham to  send  Hagar and Ishmael away, and clearly   this causes Abraham  to be distressed.  Abraham loved this boy deeply. In fact, when God came to Abraham to promise him the birth of Isaac, do you remember Abraham's response? Oh, that Ishmael might live before you. (17:18). 
God, in response is not unkind. He promises  Abraham  that He will care  for the boy and his mother, and to him are given promises (21:13,18). Here  God says to Abraham, “Because I love you, Abraham, I will make him a great nation. I will protect him.”

All this is of great significance and later in Romans  9,  Paul will use  this  story  again to  help us to understand   that not all descendants of Abraham  are  sons  of the promise :
and not all are the children of Abraham because they are his (physical ) offspring, but  through Isaac shall your offspring be named!” (cf. Rom. 9:6ff)

God is  much more merciful  to Ishmael than Sarah. And so often we think we are more merciful  than God. But  the truth is that God is much kinder.  Hagar and  Ishmael are not left destitute  by any means . And this is true of all the  unregenerate people of the world today. God is  kind and gracious  to those that deny him and curse him and  ignore him.  This will  obviously have an end, when Jesus returns as the Judge making a final separation between the two kinds of people. 

But this text makes it clear that  there are only  two kinds of people in this world  - and so it is  There are those that   love and follow the true  God who has made the heavens and the earth, and there are those that follow their own thoughts and their man made gods.  The two are not compatible.    So, God had to separate them, just  as he had separated  Abraham and Lot,  so  that his heart would be uncompromised and wholly God's. If God was going to establish His seed, it was going to be through Isaac alone.

Yes, it breaks  Abraham’s heart, but God must break His heart  to build his faith. There are so many lessons in this, but  for the sake of the table set before us, I say  only this: 
When you come to the Lord  Jesus (the ultimate Son of Promise) and you receive His righteousness , in the place of your own old insufficient self - righteousness, you become a son of Isaac, the  son the promise. And you will leave your old  ways of sin behind you. You will make a decisive  break  with ungodliness and continue with Jesus.  Amen !

[1] In Genesis, Jesus is the seed of the Woman.  In Exodus, He is the Passover Lamb. In Leviticus, He is the Priest, the Altar and the Lamb of Sacrifice. In Numbers, He is the pillar of cloud by day, and the pillar of fire by night. In Deuteronomy, Jesus is the Prophet like Moses.  In Joshua, Jesus is the captain of our salvation. In Judges, He is our Judge and Law-Giver.  In Ruth, He is our Kinsman and Redeemer. In 1 & 2 Samuel, He is our trusted  prophet. In Kings & Chronicles, He is our reigning King. In Ezra, He is the rebuilder of the broken-down walls of  our human lives.  In Nehemiah, Jesus is our Restorer. In Esther, He is our Advocate. In Job, Jesus is our Ever-Living Redeemer. In  the Psalms, He is our Shepherd. In Proverbs, He is our Wisdom. In Ecclesiastes, He is our hope of  the resurrection. In the Song of Songs, He is our loving Bridegroom. In Isaiah, Jesus is the suffering Servant. In Jeremiah , He is the righteous  who is wronged. In Lamentations, He is our weeping prophet. In Ezekiel, He is the one with the right to rule. In Daniel, Jesus is the fourth man in the fiery furnace. In Hosea, Jesus is the faithful husband.In Joel, He is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit and with  fire. In Amos, He is the restorer of Justice. In Obadiah, He is mighty to save. In Jonah, He is  the Word of God to the nations. In Micah,  He  is the feet of one who brings good news. In Nahum, Jesus is our stronghold in the day of trouble.
In Habakkuk, He is God  our Saviour. In Zephaniah, He is the King of Israel. In Haggai, He is the signet ring.
In Zechariah, He is our humble King riding on a colt. In Malachi, Jesus is the son of righteousness.
[2]  God works in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform-a hymn by William Cowper (1731-1800)
[3] Note : needs … not wants .  David was  able to testify in Psalm 37:25 : “ I have been young and now I am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, or his children begging for bread.”

Monday, December 4, 2017

Acts 19:11-20 - ”Powerful versus Powerless Religion “

Vv. 11-12  The powerful,  God -ordained ministry of the apostle  Paul
Vv. 13- 16  The powerless, man -initiated  ministry  of  the Jewish exorcists
Vv. 17-20  The verdict :  The Gospel  triumphs over   Witchcraft 

This text not only makes entertaining reading, but it is also deeply relevant for the times in which we find ourselves.  Truly life transforming, powerful, biblical Christianity  has always  found  itself  challenged  by  imitation, Pseudo -   Christianity, which has the appearance of godliness, but denying it’s power (2 Tim 3:5). It is rotten at the core. Paul counsels Timothy to avoid such people, who are ‘always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth’. (2 Tim 3:7).  

Christianity’s greatest enemy is not Islam or Hinduism, even though these religions are contrary and opposed to the Christian faith. The greatest enemy of biblical faith is that which subtly corrupts her from the inside.   

The history of the Bible   from  the beginning  in Genesis  3, outlining the fall of man  by  the agency of Satan  who puts himself in the place of God,  to the  very end  in the book of Revelation  by the work of the anti-Christ, who puts himself in the place of the Lord Jesus Christ shows this very clearly. Satan puts himself in the place of God. The anti-Christ puts himself in the place of Christ.The true God is suppressed (Rom. 1:18ff). He is substituted for lesser gods.   This history of Israel shows this.  Apostasy from the true faith occurs time and again as Israel chooses to serve the gods of the nations. It always starts with a lack of vigilance   on the part of the shepherds of the nations.  When the prophets, priests and kings failed to watch as shepherds over Israel, Israel very quickly turned aside to other gods, making Israel in effect powerless against her enemies.

Our text reveals  these two  systems.  The Book of Acts   presents us with a fresh, dynamic, powerful, pure  Christianity, but  it also shows  the rottenness  of  a religion that claims  to be of Yahweh, but which in reality  relies on men’s  opinions and men’s  systems (such as the Pharisees promoted), and often it also relies on esoteric, occultic powers, such as  was possessed  by Elymas the  Jewish sorcerer (Acts 13:6ff)  and  the 7 sons of Sceva.

There is a fundamental difference between these two. In our chapter we find them both.  The  apostle Paul  exhibited the true power of God
11 And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, 12 so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them. 

It is important that we keep   what is happening here in perspective. Many modern Christian teachers expect such things to happen in our age. On the basis of such a text some modern TV evangelists invite their hearers to lay their hands on the TV to receive their healing. Others sell oil and water anointed by  some modern prophet, promising to bring healing, prosperity or whatever else is desired. The Roman Catholic church has long been in the forefront of all this, believing  that sacred sites such as Fatima  in Spain or  Lourdes in France could be visited, relics and oils  could be bought to effect healing. Many thousands of pilgrims to Lourdes have followed the instruction of Our Lady of Lourdes to "drink at the spring and wash in it". Many people supposedly have claimed to have been cured by drinking or bathing in it[1].

So, what is happening here  in  Ephesus   through the instrumentality of the apostle Paul   needs to be understood. The apostle Paul was bringing the gospel to  Ephesus,  which  in the words of  the commentator   William Larkin, was  ‘a city most hospitable to magicians, sorcerers and charlatans of all sorts. Attached to the statue of Artemis (Diana) , the city's chief goddess, were certain symbols, ‘ta Ephesia grammata’ [2], which had been turned into a magical formula [3]. According to our African way of describing  this, it was a city filled  with witchcraft. Witchcraft  is an  attempt to manipulate spiritual forces via magical incantations, ritual acts and paraphernalia in order to ward off evil and bring well-being.  Well, Ephesus was  riddled with these elements.

Do you see what the apostle Paul is up against?  He is  preaching  the gospel in an area in which Satan had a stronghold.   And  God had planned it that a church should be established in this  city. Therefore   was uniquely endowed by God for this work  with  apostolic  authority [4]. He was given the power  in word and deed  to conquer hostile territory,  doing the same work as Jesus in advancing  the kingdom of God in a midst of a troubled, confused, demon possessed world.  He did this firstly by engaging  in synagogue preaching (Acts 18:19; 19:8 ). For three months he speaks boldly in the synagogue through "reasoning and persuading".  In this he would have used formal rhetoric and dialogue,   using  arguments from the OT  promises and NT eyewitness reports of  Christ’s ministry. He  left no stone unturned  trying to persuade Jews  and Greeks (18:4).  And ultimately  his message was "repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ", “the gospel of the grace of  God" (20:21, 24).

In this difficult city it pleased God to authenticate  His Word through the use of extraordinary and unusual  miracles.   Handkerchiefs (soudaria,  facecloths  for the head cf.  Jn. 11:44; 20:7) and aprons (better "belts"--simikinthia)   touched by Paul,  brought healing and release from  demonic spirits[5]. We have seen   such  divine power manifestations  before in the  book of Acts. We see it  as the gospel advances from Jerusalem into all the world in  concentric circles,  BREAKING NEW GROUND EVERYWHERE,beginning in Jerusalem (5:16) and into Samaria (8:7) and into Macedonia (16:16-18)  and  now  here in Ephesus (19:11,12)  at the climax of Paul's missionary efforts,  after  which he makes his way  back to Jerusalem.  

PLEASE NOTE !  These things  are  miraculous  and therefore  unusual and therefore not normative. These  miracles serve  a specific purpose.  They are strategic  verifications  of the evidence of the presence of the kingdom of God – the  reign of God as proclaimed by Jesus and Paul and the apostles (19:8).   God’s  ordinary will is that people should hear  the truth and believe.  If they will not hear and believe, they will not see and believe.  Miracles  are no guarantees  that  people will believe (see Luke 16: 19-31- specifically v. 31)
So, yes these healings did occur, but to imitate them as some have  suggested, is  to reduce miracle to magic, or manipulation.  The biblical way to call upon the Lord for  healing is found in  James   5:14-15.

Vv. 13- 16  The powerless man initiated  ministry  of  the Jewish exorcists
13 Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, "I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims." 14 Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. 15 But the evil spirit answered them, "Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?" 16 And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.
Here we have an example  of  this  Jewish group of exorcists, the 7 sons of a Jewish  high-priest  named Sceva, [in the spirit of  Elymas,  the sorcerer in Acts 9] who   tried  to invoke the Name of Jesus  over those that had evil spirits.  The   OT expressly forbade dabbling in the occult[6], but there were Jews who dabbled in the occult  (Kaballah), having been exposed to the practises of the nations around them. They thought  that by invoking a name or a formula (cf "the Ephesian grammata")  they would have power over  evil forces.  William Larkin  writes:
The sons' syncretistic appropriation follows the time-honored practice of piling name upon powerful name so as to create incantations strong enough to require spirits to do one's bidding... The name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches is these men's newest and most potent "power name" [7](cf.Eph.  1:21).

But what happens now  would be funny if it were not so serious. The evil spirit knows  Jesus  and Paul[8], but the evil spirit  does not recognize the authority of these 7 sons, and  from the mouth of a demon we learn the valuable lesson that Jesus will not allow His name to be reduced to a magical formula or to be taken in vain  (Ex. 20:7). Only those  with a personal relationship with Christ and endowed with His authority  can be used in the act of God  driving  out demons.
And so the evil spirit overpowers them (Gr. ephallomai-  to leap  upon).  They receive such a beating that they barely escape with their lives.

Vv. 17-20  The Gospel  overpowers   Witchcraft 
17 And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks. And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled. 18 Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. 19 And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. 20 So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.

True  gospel power  versus false gospel manipulation, and the true gospel wins!  The result is that fear  fell upon  all who heard about this  and the  Name of Jesus was  magnified.Understanding now that Jesus' name is not to be manipulated, people  are now in a  better position to hear the  heart of Paul’s message : Repent and believe the gospel  of Jesus Christ!  This is indeed what we see here! Many that were now believers came "confessing and divulging their practises".  The culture of magic arts, instructed by their costly books (worth 50 000  pieces of silver)   burns in the fire!  Repentance is costly. Good for them!  They are removing any temptation to go back to the old life.  Mixing the pure faith as it is in Jesus with false religion, the occult or money, education, science, technology   is dangerous. Jesus cannot be mixed with these things. He must stand over and apart from these things.   
The final verse in v. 20 affirms the  triumph of the  gospel over  fake religion:  “The word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.”  Amen.

[2]  Ephesia Grammata (Greek: Ἐφέσια Γράμματα, "Ephesian words") are Ancient Greek magical formulas attested from the 5th or 4th century BC. Their name derives from their being inscribed on the cult image of Artemis in Ephesus.  Similar to the mantras of Buddhism and Hinduism, they were "meaningless words" (ἄσημα ὀνόματα) potent to protect those who could speak them correctly, their power residing in their sound, so that they were ineffective if mispronounced. Plutarch (Quaest. Conv. 706D) reports that the Magi instructed victims of demonic possession to recite the Ephesia Grammata.
[4] This was part of his credentials as an apostle (Rom. 15:19; 2 Cor. 12:12; Gal. 3:5).
[5]  See also Lk 8:43-48; Acts 5:15
[6] Lev 20:6, 27; Deut. 18:10-11
[8] compare Lk 4:34, 41; 8:28

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Acts 19:1-7 Receiving the Holy Spirit

This text finds us at the beginning of the  3rd  missionary journey. The setting  of  Acts 19:1- 22  is located in Ephesus.

5 things happen in this section:
(i)               Paul's encounter with some of  John's disciples (19:1 - 7)
(ii)             Paul  preaches in the synagogue at Ephesus (19: 8 - 10)
(iii)           God does extra-ordinary miracles through Paul  (19:11,12) 
(iv)             Paul's "imitators" (the 7 sons of Sceva) come to grief (19:13 - 16).
(v)              The triumph of the  Gospel (19:17 - 20)

In this exposition we shall only focus on the first  7 verses.

In Ephesus the apostle Paul  found  some disciples of John  (12 of them  cf. 19:7) who were believers in the  Lord  Jesus Christ – the Messiah, but  we are told that they had not  yet  heard of  or received the Holy Spirit.  They, said they had received  the baptism of John only, but not the  baptism in or with the Holy Spirit.   

To understand this we need to turn to Matthew 3:11,12, where John the Baptist explains the difference between his ministry and that of  Jesus the Messiah: 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Paul explains the difference between John’s Baptism of repentance and Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  This is gripping stuff and so very important to understand.  All four Gospels refer to this event.  Mark and John speak of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, but only Matthew and Luke mention the baptism with fire. The immediate context in Matthew and Luke is the coming judgment (Matt. 3:7-12; Lk. 3: 7-17).  
How are we to understand these two baptisms- the baptism of the Holy Spirit , and the baptism  with fire?  
We know that the Lord Jesus came to announce and to inaugurate the kingdom of God [Matt.  4:17,23]. He came to seek and save that which was lost. He came to gather in His sheep.  His sheep are marked by the baptism of the Holy Spirit (of which the water baptism signifies that reality). However that is not all which Jesus came to do. In separating His sheep for Himself, He excludes those who do not repent. That is the implication of Matt. 3:12. These will be baptized in the fire of His judgement. It is utterly important to understand that Jesus is not only the Saviour of His people. He is also the Judge of those that do not believe. They are destined for the fire of judgement (2 Thess.1:3-10;  Rev. 20:11-15).

So these  12 disciples in Ephesus had already  embraced the preparatory ministry of John, and in that sense they were OT believers, but  the fullness of the NT message  had not yet been revealed to them.   We may imagine then, that when Paul found these Ephesian disciples, that he sensed that something was lacking in their experience, and he began to probe them with questions.    What was the   baptism of John saying and what was it lacking? 

(i)               What  the baptism of John signified :  Remember that John was preaching to  ethnic Jews, God's covenant people, having the sign of the covenant, circumcision. Look at Matt. 3:6: "They were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins." This is why his baptism was called "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mk 1:4). He challenged the Jews to admit that they were sinners. He  told them that they  desperately  needed to get right with God. John was thus saying that being  a Jew was no guarantee of being  right with God.  This baptism  was  a way  by which they were   saying  that they needed more than to depend upon their ethnic Jewishness. Being a Jew could not save them  from the coming wrath  of God. They needed to repent from their sins  and turn to God. It was to  these  that  John,  the forerunner  of the Messiah  said: "Confess your sins, repent, and  seal this  with baptism, because God's wrath is hanging over you like  the axe that is  laid to the root of the trees.(Matt 3:9)  

(ii)             What the baptism  of John was lacking :  Although John was pointing the repentant Jews to Christ, they still needed to come to  embrace Christ through the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the promised gift of the Father, by which Christ would  enter  into   each believer  in a way  which the prophets Jeremiah (33:31-34) and Ezekiel and Amos had spoken of . 
And so, when Paul  asks these 12 believers in Ephesus, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?"  - they answer:  "No, we haven't even heard there is a Holy Spirit" (which may simply mean that they haven’t heard  that  there is a Holy Spirit to be received,  and not necessarily that they haven't heard  of  'Holy Spirit' before).
Paul presses on: "But you were baptized?" "Yes!"  "Then what baptism did you receive?" John's baptism, of course". The penny drops. Paul understands what has happened, and therefore the rest of the narrative makes sense. There was an essential aspect missing. The Holy Spirit, the promised gift of the Father, had not yet descended on them.  In fact they were probably  in exactly the same category as Apollos   in 18:24-26.  They had received John's baptism - a baptism of repentance, which placed them in exactly the same category as the believers in Acts 1, prior to Pentecost. And so Paul lays his  hands on them, and they receive the Holy Spirit in the same manner as the believers did in Jerusalem, with signs following: speaking in other languages, and proclaiming  the truth of God as it is in Jesus - just as at Pentecost (Acts 2). They are now completely on par with the experience  of their brothers/sisters in Jerusalem. 


During the the 70’s  and  into the 90’s  of the last century  a text like this was a veritable battleground. The Pentecostal and charismatic movements saw texts like these as proof-texts for a two tier experience  of God.  This  teaching was originally found in the  holiness movement (popularized by  the early Keswick teaching of the 1800’s – the doctrine of entire sanctification), and this was largely absorbed by  the Pentecostal  movement  and some Charismatic groups. In  essence they said  that, subsequent  one’s salvation one needed to  experience the  baptism in or with  the Holy Spirit  in order to become a Spirit –filled Christian - a more complete Christian. Many   Christians  disagreed over this teaching and many more despaired over the fact that they had not experienced such a  thing  and that they did not speak in tongues or prophesied, thus feeling that they were ‘second class’ Christians.
The question is this:  Notwithstanding  such an indication, does the book of Acts teach  such a two tier Christian experience?

The struggle  which modern evangelical  Christians, committed to the inspiration of the  Word of God, have  has often been along the line  of  Hermeneutics - principles of interpretation.  Is  the book of Acts  meant to be literally applied to our situation today? Or are there unique  situations  described  here  which are related to a particular historical time frame (i.e.  such as  the historical coming of the Holy Spirit  at Pentecost), so that we must be careful to distinguish between issues that pertain to a particular historical situation,  and on the other hand  discerning issues that are of  timeless principle?

So we have this passage here in  19: 1 - 7 that seemingly  indicates  a 2 tier  Christian experience.  Should  we expect to be  baptized  in the Holy Spirit, subsequent to our  salvation  and  accompanied  by a speaking in tongues or prophesying? And from 19: 11 - 12  we  might ask  whether we should expect  that  happening today? Should these things be seen in  our services/ ministry of the church?

There are many  that would say "yes!” These things ought to be expected and they are normative. They are called 'Continuationists' .  Those that say that  Pentecost was a once off , unique  historical  experience, introducing the promised Holy Spirit into the  world  are called 'Cessassionists' . They  would question  whether  these early sign gifts are needed  today. They would also point to   the fact that  the  modern  miracles  claimed  by these  do not match up to the power  of   Pentecost.  They would say  that the book of Acts in general, and such a text in particular  is misapplied by our Pentecostal friends. They  would say  that  they have ignored the fact that the Book of Acts   is historical narrative  i.e.  that it reports on events in the historical development of the early church, and as such is descriptive of what happened . It does not attempt to be doctrinally prescriptive.   

What we see in the book of Acts is a progressive movement of the Holy Spirit, after the Ascension of the Lord Jesus.  The outpouring of the Holy Spirit  begins in Jerusalem,  and  continues into Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. It is like a ripple effect. The Holy Spirit moves out in concentric circles.  He begins in Jerusalem (Acts 2) and  Judea. In Chapter 8, following the death of Stephen  and scattering of the church, the gospel comes into Samaria, and there we see the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the same way  (8:14), and then on the gentiles  in Caesarea  (10:44-48)  and now lastly here in Ephesus  in  Acts  19:1-7
Just as Jesus said in Acts 1:8!

Ephesus  was  so to speak at the end of the world. The Holy Spirit had  now  been given to the gentiles at the end of the world,  and with this goal achieved  we hear nothing more  of this kind of activity .  The  Holy Spirit  had been outpoured. The  point was made.  The Holy Spirit was  given illustratively  to people who had been ignorant of the full work of God and   who have not heard  of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  They were still living in the O.T. which culminated with John the Baptist. They had not known or understood that the new times had been ushered in by Jesus. Though believing in  the Messiah, through their understanding of the OT prophecies,  they had not been regenerated by the Holy Spirit to understand the person and work of Christ fully.As soon as these dear people  had realized all this, Pentecost caught up  with them.

But the big point about Spirit baptism  is this : Jesus baptizes every true believer with or in the Holy Spirit. In fact, only the Holy Spirit can reveal Jesus and His finished work on the cross to us.  Only the  Holy Spirit can help us to believe in Jesus.  The Holy Spirit  enables  us  in this regard in  these three areas:
(i)               Repentance
(ii)              Faith in Jesus
(iii)            Spirit Baptism.

All this should be followed by water baptism  which is an identification of the true believer  with the Lord Jesus in his death, burial and resurrection from the dead. 

All these are  are indispensable aspects in Christian experience. They are normative! 
Are these signs found in your life? 
Is the name of the Lord Jesus held in high honour in your life? (19:17)  
Have a you followed Him in every way?


Here in this passage we are told \ that "the Spirit came on them" (19:6). It happened in response to the understanding they had received. It happened all in one go. There was never a two - stage initiation. These people became  converted  through the sovereign action of God by the Holy Spirit. Illustratively,  Rom. 8:9; 1 Cor.  3:16 ; 6:19  all teach that the Holy Spirit  fully dwells in us  at conversion. 

There are other operations of the Holy Spirit  in the life of the believer after we are converted, but they are the subject of another discussion, and these  often depend  upon our obedience  to Christ.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Genesis 20 - “Abraham Grew through Failure”

Abraham grew through failure ... but not in the way we commonly think.  Germany  after  her disastrous engagement in two world wars grew through  through her failure, producing  an economic miracle, and yet  the German people   by and large did not grow  in the knowledge of God  If anything,   Germany  continues to move away from her Reformation heritage.  
We can  grow through our failures, but not necessarily  in a God-ward direction. Many people  learn from their mistakes,  because pain can be  a great teacher.  But Abraham grew  through his failures, and by the pure grace of God  he  grew, step by step  in godliness. 
We shall see in a future  sermon  from   Genesis  22 , that Abraham's faith and  confidence in God  will have  grown significantly by the time that  Isaac has been born. 

We have previously seen that Abraham’s  spiritual walk  with God (Chapters  12 -25)  is a series of ups and downs.   Our walk with God – our experience of sanctification is like climbing one of our famous Namibian sand dunes … three steps forward, one step back. But at least there is progress, and that is what we see essentially in Abraham’s life.    Nothing in the Genesis narrative gives us the indication that Abraham was a perfect man in himself. What we do see however is a wonderful example of a man chosen and loved by God and therefore   kept by the grace of God, and by this grace he was always advancing with God. Essentially, Abraham grew through his failures, and not because he was a good learner, but because God was so very gracious to him. 
It is significant to note that God seldom intervened   when His chosen people, and particularly his leaders   were about to make mistakes. He allowed them to fail, but  because of His love for them He was always ready to redeem them, and so  they did grow and grace and faith.  As already mentioned, the radical faith of Abraham  in the  22nd  Chapter of Genesis  shall humble us greatly. And so Abraham’s understanding of God was not merely a theoretical thing. He did not learn God from books. He learned God from experience.  Abraham learned the painful way    that shortcut’s did not ultimately make things easier for him.  In the struggles with childlessness, the birth of Ishmael did not bring about a solution. In fact the shortcut had made things more difficult.  Obedience does not come naturally to fallen people. We will try anything before we trust God and His Word. And it does us no good. If it were not for the great grace of God, none of us would stand! 

So, then let us trace the developments as they unfold in this chapter:

(i)               Vv.1-2 : Abraham's deception of Abimelech

We are not told why Abraham moved away from Mamre, but in all likelihood the memories associated with God's judgment against Sodom had something to do with it. Should he have moved away, from Mamre near Hebron, in the Promised Land where he had built an altar to the LORD (13:18) in the first place?

All we know is that by moving away he moves to renewed trouble, renewed temptations,   when he moves away from his spiritual haven into the territory of Abimelech[1], whose kingdom is located on the southern boundaries of Israel, towards the desert, the Negev. There is a spiritual lesson here for all of us. One of our great temptations in this life is to give way to our fear and insecurity,  and with it the associated thought that the grass is greener on the other side.  We tend to move from our fruitful and familiar place far too soon  when we sense discouragement, and  we get ourselves into  sticky situations. The safest and best place is close to  the altar of God - close to the people  of God, close to the church.  Moving into pagan  territory is associated with  many temptations , as we see here 

In Chapter 20 we find a repetition of a spiritual problem   found in Chapter 12:10-20. Abraham and Sarah were on the move, and as they  moved through different kingdoms  Abraham feared for his own life, (“They will kill me”  - 12:12; 20:11), and that for a very strange and unusual reason. He feared for his life on account of his wife Sarah, who must have been a particularly attractive woman, even in her older years.   In those years of the patriarchs, people lived much longer than they do today. The genetic material was purer, because the effects of the fall had not yet taken its full toll.  Abraham feared for his own life on account of beautiful Sarah.  He failed to trust God for His protection against the covetous heart of Pharaoh with respect to Sarah in Chapter 12.   And so it is again here with Abimelech of  Gerar  in Chapter 20  who took Sarah  into his Harem. The problem was that Abraham told both men a lie.  He told them that she was his sister , which was  true, but it was half true, and a half truth is also a lie.  He really struggled to trust God in these situations.    
And it was a terrible thing to do to  Sarah at this time  – the year before the promised child was to be born to  them.  But you see, there is much more going on here than meets the eye.   The world , the flesh and the devil conspire  to  keep the Messianic line  going , and  in this Abraham  own  urge towards  self –preservation,  is rooted  in  a much more   idolatrous problem  than that : GOD CAN’T BE TRUSTED  IN MY SITUATION. I HAVE TO  SEE MYSELF THROUGH THIS.  I AM IN CHARGE!   This is the lie  by which Satan originally tempted Eve.
This really begs for further thought.  Abraham, highly esteemed in the 11th chapter of Hebrews, the so called Faith Chapter, fails to trust in God.  How then can God continue to love this man? The answer is important!  God had declared Abraham righteous.  He had sovereignly chosen Abraham. God had justified Abraham, but he had not yet been delivered from his body of sin, and from his sinful environment, and from the influences of Satan.   And so Abraham provides Paul the perfect example of a sinner saved by grace and not by Abraham's perfect righteousness. We know he wasn’t!  Right now he is not trusting God. Right now he is lying. Right now he is putting his wife into a very difficult spot. And therefore there was another basis that commended Abraham to God.  Thank God for His free Grace! 

(ii)             Vv.3-7:  God  comes to Abimelech in a dream and reveals to him what has happened and what he must do.

God’s grace becomes immediately visible as God speaks to Abimelech in a dream.  God will not allow His promises to and through  Abraham and Sarah  to be thwarted. They are crucial instruments in the fulfillment of the Messianic line. And so the grace of God intervenes, when all seems lost.

Abimelech of course has no clue that Sarah was not Abraham’s sister but his wife and he claims innocence in the matter.  But ignorance has never been an excuse in the eyes of God and the law. Abimelech is being called to account for coveting the wife of another man, and God is threatening to kill him.  We find here an ironic contrast between the relatively righteous behaviour of a pagan, Abimelech, and of Abraham, a  so called friend of  God.  And ultimately,  the difference between the two men is not their relative righteousness, but the grace of God, and the position and promises  that  God has assigned to Abraham. The glory of God is at stake here.  And so Abraham is what he is , by the grace of God and for the glory of God . There is nothing meritorious in Abraham  himself. 

And s o God says to Abimelech here, that Abraham is a prophet, a spokesman , a mouthpiece of  God.  This is  first time  that the  word prophet is used in the scriptures. Abraham is called the prophet of the Lord, not  so much because he has the powers to foretell the future, but because Abraham has a special relationship with God, and this is highlighted in his intercession at the end of the chapter.

(iii)           Vv. 4-13:  Abimelech confronts Abraham.

Abraham's sinful heart is exposed by Abimelech. Abraham makes three  pathetic excuses to Abimelech.  
·     v.11    There is no fear of God in this place – which is not true. God has just caused Abimelech to be very afraid .
·       v.12  Sarah is technically my  sister. Yes, that is true – but she is also his covenant wife.   
·       v. 13.  “When God caused me to wander from my father’s house I said to her , “This kindness you must do to me: at every place to which we come , say of me , he is my brother.”    He says God has caused me to wander like this, and “Sarah and I had this prior arrangement” !  He’s blame-shifting and he is not taking responsibility  for his cowardice !

(iv)            Vv. 14-18 : Abraham intercedes for Abimelech.

God in His grace uses  Abraham for His glory  and  in spite of  himself.  Abimelech’s (unknowing) sin is exposed in turn, and God is gracious to forgive this pagan king who has  sinned in ignorance. Abraham is appointed by God to pray for Abimelech and  for his people who have been afflicted by God for this sin, and  as a result of his command  and Abraham's prayer to  the God  who has called him and commanded him , God heals  Abimelech  and his people.

Isn't that an example of God in His grace using us for His glory in spite of ourselves, in spite of our sin?  And what is amazing is that God never mentions Abraham’s unfaithfulness again – not in those texts and expositions    concerning Abraham in  Romans 4, not in Galatians 3 &4, and not in Hebrews 11. In fact in Hebrews 11 Abraham is highly commended for having an extraordinary faith. Never does God refer to his past sin again.  Again we become aware of God’s amazing grace in Christ, and in the end we do see that Abraham grew through failure, not because of his own efforts, but because of the  amazing grace of God. 
Never stop magnifying the grace of God, and never cease to wonder that God loves you despite your many sins and trespasses. God loves you in the Christ in whom you have placed your faith and hope. God  loves you because of Jesus  who has kept the law for you, and  who has forgiven you  all yours sins and iniquities.  And the reason why you can grow in grace at all is because God is at work  in you even in your failures. 

And Jesus, because of His work on the cross is so very worthy of our praise!  And with  that  thought we now  come to the  Communion Table  spread for us.  Amen!

[1] lit. "father" and "king," and may be interpreted in a variety of ways, including "Father-King", "My father is king," or "Father of a king.  In the Pentateuch, it is used as a title for kings in the land of Canaan.  Abimelech was  probably  a dynastic title. We see  that name being applied to another king of Gerar in Genesis 26 : 8 in the time of Isaac.  It is also applied to Achish, the king of Gath, in I Samuel  21: 10  cf. Psalm 34.